Reconstruction Disaster Planning in Germany Research Paper

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In 1945, with World War II over and the National Socialist dictatorship under siege by Allied troops, great parts of German cities lay in rubble, their populations often reduced to only a few tens of thousands. Despite great hardship, life reemerged unexpectedly fast and soon discussions began on rebuilding the cities. Reconstruction plans had been in preparation since 1943. There was therefore no ‘zero hour’ for urban planning. The following article will underline the continual development in planning theory and practice, the inspirations for the concepts, and the debate about urban design before and after 1945.

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1. Preliminaries

After World War I, town and country planning in Germany in general changed its focus from the policy of improvement—slowly introduced since the latenineteenth century—to a strategic approach. This phase was hampered by the economic crisis in 1929. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they had in fact no specific policies for urban planning but were able to select from existing scholarship those strategies which were useful to the new dictatorship: 1933/34: Improvement of both traffic and housing conditions in the historic urban cores of German cities had been widely neglected since World War I in favor of building new housing schemes at the urban fringe. The first concepts for the renewal of historically valuable and attractive housing stock from preindustrial periods date from around 1930. This new approach then was to maintain the pretty street layout by clearing the blocks’ interiors (as occurred in Brunswick, Frankfurt, and Kassel). Lack of money due to armaments production led to such schemes being deferred. However, it was useful to early National Socialist policy to support them as work providing measures which brought beneficial improvements to local economies, as well as for ideological reasons (see von Petz 1990).

1937: Albert Speer’s plan to redesign Berlin as a future ‘Germania’ became the model for the redesign of German provincial capitals. Showing conventional architecture of monumental style with axes appropriate to the parading party and public buildings within central urban areas, these plans were nevertheless designed according to existing planning knowledge which had already been developed widely in the preceding decade.

1940: The policy of armament and the war of conquest led to a stronger functional approach to planning. Growing individual mobility and the change from the detached settlements of the early ‘blood and soil’ period to compact housing concepts provoked a change to planning paradigms even in wartime. The advance to the East led to initiatives for redesigning the settlement structure of the conquered territories. Walter Christaller’s ‘central places’ theory of 1933 was easily adaptable to the required hierarchical structural system. Political goals combined with military ambitions also led to marked improvements in planning methods and techniques, such as statistics, cartography, and aerial photography.

1943: The disastrous bombing of cities forced a return to the debate dating back to the CIAM discussion of 1933 on rebuilding towns. A decree by the Fuhrer regarding the reconstruction of German cities after the anticipated victory empowered Albert Speer to establish a team of reconstruction planners, with each member given responsibility for one or more cities. The plans were quite heavily influenced by comparisons with advanced design methods to international standard and some, indeed, served as first concepts for reconstruction after 1945 (Durth 1986).

2. Political Reconstruction

From 1871, national state pride and the desire for international reputation dominated the politics of the Imperial Reich. The Morgenthau doctrine aimed to prevent Germany from returning to such a powerful state. In 1945, therefore, the Allies promoted the decentralization of Germany, basing their strategy on a tradition dating from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century of strong feudal states with attractive provincial capitals. The city of Bonn, a modest city among those former feudal seats, became the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, many of the new West German states retained their former seats as capitals. Berlin was divided and the German Democratic Republic kept East Berlin as its capital. In the East, the former state capitals were promoted less. Thus two systems existed simultaneously between 1961 and 1990: East Berlin as the capital and center of power in the socialist state, with other cities as only regional centers, and in the western federal state a more modest capital with 11 quite strong state capitals and, under them, a tier of regional towns.

3. Rebuilding The Cities: The Western Approach

Before the war the modernization process in German cities was badly impeded by their historic heritage. West German postwar planners therefore used the opportunity of rebuilding the bombed cities according to modern international planning standards that, before 1933, had been developed continuously and which Germany, with its dreams of a thousand-year Reich, had for a while gambled away. Nevertheless a very few international links were maintained (Fischer 1990). The founding of the Federal Republic in 1948, the monetary reform urged by the Marshall Plan, and the Korean War, produced economic growth which helped to speed reconstruction. This focused on two goals: first, to bring sun, air, and light into the urban cores which, to most minds, had suffered so much from urban concentration and industrialization and, second, to provide motor car access to the cities.

But West Germany adopted different approaches for rebuilding the demolished core areas in the postwar period (for statistics on rubble, see Diefendorf 1993, pp. 3–17). The schemes ranged from radical modernization to a moderate reconstruction or traditional adaptation (also Beyme 1987, pp. 175–7). Munster in Westfalia or the Bavarian capital of Munich, for example, employed quite traditional lines, based on the historic layout and scale and, in cases of new constructions, a moderate adaptation of modern design for the facades. Monuments were rebuilt or restored. Cities such as Kassel, Dortmund, Cologne or Hanover, on the other hand, were proud of their rather radical approach to the modern town plan.

Recently some cities have given greater emphasis to re-evaluating historic structures and inner city areas. In Frankfurt, rebuilding from scratch the eastern row of buildings along Romerberg in medieval style in 1984 provoked an intense controversy in West Germany about reconstruction and the ‘truth’ of history. This is one of several examples of postmodern city design in Germany.

4. Urban Development Policy

The Athens Charter was published in Germany only in 1957 but its ideas were already 25 years old and, during these years, had more or less been the basis for urban development policies. Organizing the city ac-cording to four main functions (work, housing, leisure, transport) was from this point the planner’s core strategy. The treatment of the neighborhood as the basic planning unit was introduced into German planning from 1940. News of Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1943/44 with its green belt strategy spread quickly, as did the reconstruction plan for Rotterdam. Thus, after 1948, a flourishing economy helped urban growth to develop to modern standards, based until the mid-sixties on the main concept of the ‘organic art of town planning’ (Reichow 1948), the ‘composite and disaggregated city’ (Goderitz, Rainer, Hoffmann 1957) or ‘the car city’ (Reichow 1959). The tenement house (Mietskaserne) and the noisy, crowded and dusty nineteenth-century industrial city were seen in a negative light. The vision was of a green city spread across the landscape, designed on a basic human scale as neighborhoods each with its own facilities, located in zones, suburbs or quarters. Motor car access was universal, but separated from walkways and rail systems, with a rich variety of open green spaces for leisure pursuits. The city center and central business district (CBD) were the dominant feature, incorporating reconstructed historic monuments and some high-rise buildings as the crown of the city.

The comprehensive urban renewal of nineteenth-century housing stock meanwhile aggravated the need for new housing, necessitating a change to a new policy of high-density housing in the periphery. Density outside the city also needed to be increased substantially to make public transport schemes efficient, and dreary suburban neighborhoods should, based on the perceptions of Jane Jacobs, or Hans Paul Bahrdt in Germany, be amended by ‘urbanity,’ by the transfer of urban design and dimensions to the periphery, without its lamentable deficiencies and defects.

Around 1975, severe economic changes stemming from the oil crisis and new technologies demanded an urgent review of planning aims and procedures. Several new arguments had already influenced planning—participation, ecology, the rediscovery of the nineteenth-century city and the attractiveness of its tenement house, and the ineffectiveness and inflexibility of large-scale planning. Planning was put under the microscope, necessitating reflection on, and alteration to, its theories, strategies, methods, and procedures. The new planning culture had to work with new technologies and economies, greater social mobility and the breakup of society and as a result new urban models developed. This discussion is still in progress.

5. Rebuilding The Cities: The Eastern Approach

Without a doubt, East Germany did things differently. Apart from Berlin, Dresden, Magdeburg, Leipzig and Chemnitz and a few others, many cities in the East were not touched by air raids. The building stock and inner areas of these cities therefore still date more or less from Hanseatic or court tradition as well as from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) after its founding in 1948 abolished the private market, nationalized land and built structures, while the government took responsibility for their regulation. But the priority of the new socialist state was the improvement of its own economy to provide the population with basic goods and to make the productive sector independent from the Western market. Money for housing was scarce. Projects of the mid-1950s, like the Stalinallee in East Berlin (riposted in West Berlin with the International Building Exhibition, the ‘Interbau’ at Hansaviertel, Tiergarten with buildings by internationally renowned architects such as Aalto or le Corbusier), or the construction of the new industrial town of Stalinstadt (later Eisenhuttenstadt) (May in press), were outstanding and proved to be excellent propaganda. As early as 1950, however, East Berlin developed a list of 16 principles of town planning as a socialist riposte to the Athens Charter, at the insistence of Moscow. According to these principles, a city had to be compact and of a traditional national, or regional style.

Only after Stalin’s death was the GDR able to adopt a functional town plan and a modern language in architecture. This led to industrialization in the building sector. Lack of building materials and a dramatic shortage of housing forced the government to rationalize the building process radically. Nationally organized housing production units with regional competence, were from the early 1960s responsible for planning and construction. The planning competencies of local authorities were limited. Urban reconstruction under these circumstances meant erecting new prefabricated housing schemes in rows of multistorey blocks on the urban fringe and moving people to them. The existing building stock was not renewed as no building material or a sufficiently skilled labor force were available. Private initiative was therefore more or less impossible. It was intended to replace the existing but decaying late-nineteenth century urban housing stock at a later date with new prefabricated blocks. Inspired by West Germany, a few test projects started around 1980 and some modified concrete slabs were produced to integrate better into the urban fabric. This proved too expensive. The policy to replace old housing stock as quickly as possible with blocks of prefabricated concrete units also met with limited success. The reprehensible treatment of the urban environment and the appalling decay of the cities was at the root of the people’s movement in 1989.


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  2. Diefendorf J M 1993 In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities After World War II. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 3–17
  3. Durth W 1986 Deutsche Architekten. Biographische Verflechtungen 1900–1970 (German Architects. Biographical Inter-lacings 1900–1970). Vieweg, Braunschweig Wiesbaden, Germany
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  5. Durth W, Duwel J, Gutschow N 1998 Ostkreuz, Aufbau, Architectur und Stadtebau der DDR (Architecture and town planning of the GDR) 2 vols. Campus, Frankfurt, Germany
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  9. Petz von U 1997 Ruhr Basin 1920 In: Bosma K, Hellinga H (eds.) Mastering the City, 2 vols. NAI, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, vol. I, pp. 56–65, vol. II, pp. 184–91
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